Friday, April 17, 2009 Weekly Column: How I Use Twitter to be a Better Public Servant

This afternoon I am speaking at Career Bootcamp 2009 to discuss the use of social media as a means for professional networking. While I delve briefly into the transformative nature of these tools (h/t @Cedgell for pointing out that maybe I should do that), a large part of my discussion revolves around how I use twitter to be a more effective public servant. So in the spirit of avoiding too much duplication, this week's column will cover some of what I am saying in my presentation, less the witty banter that will (hopefully) make it so engaging.

That being said, if you are attending my session, you may want to wait and read this afterwards, otherwise you will spoil the fun.

Connect w/Public Servants

I have been able to use twitter to more easily connect with other public servants outside my department that I might not have otherwise been able to connect with. These are people who work for other departments, often on very different files of my own, but these are also people with whom I share certain commonalities. The most striking for me is that these are people whose default setting is to share.

One of the interesting things about using twitter to interact with other public servants is that the hierarchical norms of groups and levels inherent within the organizational reporting structure simply do not exist. This is just my assessment, but there is something unmistakably genuine about my communications with others using twitter.

Nowhere are you more likely to be heralded as a creative genius, called a spade if you are one, or be completely ignored altogether. Twitter is what you make of it, and it can be more then just short burst instant messages about the random musings in your day. It is a medium where you can share, build relationships across organizations (or their hierarchies) and, in so doing create value for yourself and others without incurring any costs to you or your organization. I am not saying that there isn’t a fair amount of noise on twitter, there is, but it is fairly easy to avoid, don’t follow people who aren’t giving you what you need.

I feel as though the open nature of Twitter is one possible future face of the public service. One that could help dispel a lot of the rumour that makes bureaucracy jokes so fashionable and easy. Any citizen who wanted to see what I was working on could just take a look at my stream.

Connect with Communities of Practice

I have been able to leverage Twitter to connect with knowledge management (KM) communities of practice (KM is my day job). The community is wide-ranging and I am admittedly more of a passive observer than anything. That being said, I have learned a great deal from simply listening to and reading what they are reading and writing about.

How did I find them? I did two simple searches (via an advanced search on (1) knowledge management, and (2) KM. I quickly found a group of people tweeting about it and providing links to resources. I also quickly found their hashtag (#KM). At which point I simply tweeted:

Within minutes of my tweet, I had a number of people contact me with suggestions for people to follow, blogs to visit, journals to read, and a host of other related links. Knowing and using hashtags is so important for filtering information. The great thing about them is that other people are already following them. The #KM community is already listening to people tagging their tweets. Finding the community was never so easy.

Listen for the Retweet (RT)

I mentioned above that I was a more passive observer amongst the #KM community. But that doesn't mean I am not listening attentively. One of the best ways I have found to filter Twitter community chatter is by employing targeted RSS feeds.

For example, I have an RSS feed that delivers me all of the tweets that meet these criteria:

  1. contains the #KM hashtag
  2. contains a link
  3. contains the word "RT" in it (no quotes)

Essentially, this gives me direct access to any link on knowledge management being retweeted (RT) on twitter. Following retweets is an easy way to see what members of the community have determined to be valuable. It’s like a form of peer-review: someone tweets something to their followers, one of those followers determines that the tweet is interesting enough to share (i.e. retweet) with their followers, and so on. If a link isn't worth retweeting, then it may not be worth reading.

The result is that I get the links about knowledge management that float to the top. Sure I might miss a lot, but given the breadth and depth of information out there, who isn't? Furthermore it ensures that I can see what the community is reading, then I simply make the choice to do the reading or not by assessing whether it makes sense given the context of my work. Once I tapped into this community using this method, I stopped doing my own research because the community was doing it for me. As long as they remain active, I can focus my time elsewhere while continuing to collect dividends on their work. Likewise, when I retweet something I am endorsing a piece of information and providing the same service for other people.

Monitor Chatter about my Department (et al)

While I am using my #KM feed as an example, I have a variety of other feeds that I use in this manner; and am always ready to expand (or contract) my feeds (or my follows) as they become more or less useful.

I have RSS feeds in place to monitor anyone tweeting about my department (all three variants: Service Canada, HRSDC and Labour Program). I see all of the complaints and compliments that my department may not be officially monitoring.

I also use RSS feeds to listen in on what people are up to on GCPEDIA, #changecampottawa and other projects I am involved in or couldn't otherwise be personally involved in.

Tweet Now, Read Later

I am essentially using twitter as a form of personal knowledge management (#PKM). I often run into things that I want to read but just don't have the time immediately available. If that info is already in my RSS reader, there isn't a problem because I can get to it eventually. If it isn't I simply tweet the link and its title.

Later on I can simply run a search on my tweets that contain links. When appropriate I hashtag them (e.g. #cpsr = Canadian public service renewal; #gov20 = government 2.0; or #KM = knowledge management) so that I, or anyone else looking at my stream can more easily filter the information, and get a quick understanding of what the link is about.

Twitter is more than

By now I am sure that you have the sense that Twitter is about much more than their flaky (but endearingly simple) looking website.

I rely on RSS feeds to aggregate the wide variety of information I need delivered to a single place (Google Reader). If you aren't already using RSS feeds then this post should have at least turned you on to their potential. (For more information on RSS and how to use it, you could just Google it).

I also use tweetdeck - just one of a number of applications that interface with twitter to allow greater control and flexibility. One of the key reasons I use it is because it allows you to group the people you follow.

Grouping people helps me divide up my attention accordingly. For example, I created a group within Tweetdeck that is only public servants. I pay more attention to this group than any other. I reply to all tweets in this group, I don't hesitate to jump into the conversation, and perhaps most importantly I have come to expect a response when I engage with someone in this group. For those same reasons, two other lists I am building are (1) people who live in Ottawa, and (2) people with whom I have actually engaged in a discussion via twitter or elsewhere.


By now I am certain that you are tired of reading my twitter love in, but I have made it work for me - which is the most important reason to use it. It helps me accomplish what I am seeking to accomplish. If it didn't why would I bother?

Wait was that last statement a rhetorical question, or a cleverly veiled attempt to get you to question why you do things the way you do them now? Probably the latter.



  1. Great post! Your comments about connecting with others, outside your own organization, resonates with my own experience.

    Over the last few weeks I've established incredibly useful connections with people; people I would never have been able to reach working within the hierarchical system.

  2. Interested in knowing how you set up the RSS feed ("Listen for the Retweet (RT)")...? Thanks!

    Patrick Cormier

  3. Brilliant! Nick I'll be sending my gov speaking audiences to this post. Simple, clear example of a specific use of Twitter from the "inside". I always try to sell people on the concept of Twitter (real-time conversation database) as opposed to the actual tool(s). Looking forward to speaking together at marcom2009.